In 2005, during a year of Americorps, I was told not to go near a group of people involved in the “streets.” I was told they were “too dangerous.” What I found wasn’t overwhelming violence and danger. What I saw was love, support, and belonging.
I saw society’s weaponized use of fear used to devalue people as “criminals,” while barely, if at all, acknowledging their circumstance. The streets of America’s making - through our history of oppression and problematic policy - created barriers around safety for a very small group of people so stigmatized that survival involved gun violence. I saw a void in resources and programs that could take into consideration the safety needs of this specific group of individuals, and I saw an opportunity to dispel fear, anger, and hostility with authentic connection, understanding, and belonging.
InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) has evolved from a weight training program when we launched in 2010, to a workforce development track in 2011, and then to a social justice organization leveraging a social enterprise in 2012 – when we opened our first gym – helping to create economic mobility through careers in fitness and beyond.
As our personal training client base grew, we realized the impact was greater than just financial gain. People were connecting in ways that transcended social hierarchies. Power dynamics were flipped, people were forming relationships and sharing perspective. We saw the importance of bridging social capital, how it could ripple from individual impact, to family, to community, and ultimately to society.
ICW addresses the problems, while valuing the people. We don’t believe in doing something for someone. Instead, we partner with and alongside each person at ICW. We don’t promise to solve someone’s problems, which is naïve and condescending at best, but instead we promise to be by someone’s side so they don’t have to solve alone.
Contrary to society's beliefs, the “streets" are rooted in love, togetherness, and value. However, in response to mass incarceration (a privatized industry costing more than $80B annually), we have created a cycle of stigma, and limited opportunity and mobility. Punishing people who are fighting
historic inequities won’t work, but valuing someone - their voice, their agency – and respecting someone as an individual that is the start.
A LETTER FROM OUR FOUNDER
ICW has proven our model. In response to the 4 stages of our model – Trust, Hope, Bridging social capital, Economic mobility – we have seen recidivism rates drop from 88% in the first stage of our model to 8.2% in the final stage of our model. Our most conservative social return on investment is 16.5X.
This doesn’t even begin to capture the holistic return (including cost on health care system, impact of
gun violence on property values, total cost of judicial system, and impact on family members) which
jumps our social ROI to over 17:1!
Our drive for growth isn’t simply because there’s a need and opportunity. It’s because through expansion of our core services, personal training and corporate training, and through geographic expansion we can amplify the voice and agency of people in our program. If we can generate enough
individual impact, then we can generate a ripple that extends from individual, to community, to society.
Policy change is important. But, without moral change, historically any well intended policy has been
met with new forms of oppression. Valuing people is at the heart of this moral change, and if the same
people society has labeled and devalued, become the people we listen to, then true change is possible
starting with each person.
- Jonathan Feinman, Founder & CEO